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A short history of the biggest prize in esports

A short history of the biggest prize in esports

Never one to do today what can be put off ‘til the Dota 2 subreddit breaks out into a collective conniption, Valve Software has released the ruleset, format, and prize distribution of The International 2016.

By the way, it starts today.

Valve’s governance of professional Dota 2 has always been somewhat laissez-faire, especially in comparison to Riot Games’ punctilious micromanagement of the League Championship Series. And, to be sure, most of what Valve has now announced is hardly worth mentioning; the format for Dota 2’s premier event is virtually identical to previous years. But one change evinces the action of an invisible corporate hand: for better or worse, a larger percentage of The International 2016’s spoils ($19,301,276, at the time of writing) will now be funneled into the pockets of the winners at the expense of every other team. Whereas last year’s winning team (Evil Geniuses) took home only 36 percent of the prize pool, this year’s champions will claim 44 percent.

Maybe that eight percent shift doesn’t sound significant. But with almost $20 million on the line, that’s a full $1,600,000 that’s not being distributed among the 15 teams that don’t claim the Aegis of Champions. If this change seems rather Reaganesque to you, I don’t disagree. But perhaps some history can help bring the logic behind this upward redistribution into focus.

History can help bring this upward redistribution into focus.

When Valve first organized The International back in 2011, its prize pool – $1,600,000, 62.5 percent ($1 million) of which went to the winnerwas entirely subsidized by the company. 2012’s International (TI2) duplicated this arrangement. It wasn’t until The International 3 (2013) that crowdfunding entered the picture; now, fans could purchase a $10 Compendiuma digital book commemorating the eventand boost the prize pool by $2.50. Even so, the 2013 compendium was rather primitive, at least as far as money sinks go. Beyond a few pages of predictions, the compendium was more-or-less a static virtual good. As a result, the increase in prize pool was relatively modest (though still big enough to make TI3 the Biggest Tournament Ever). Ultimately, the Swedish organization Alliance took home 50% of a $2,874,380 prize.

Today, that number seems rather quaint. In 2014, Valve returned with a digital compendium stacked with scaling rewards, which encouraged players to go well beyond their initial $10 investment. Immediately, the prize pool soared to just under $11 million; in 2015, an even more finely tuned compendium, combined with a soaring player base, ushered in an $18,429,613 purse. With it came sustained calls for a more equitable prize pool distribution. The sheer size of the prize pool meant that even a middling performance could support a professional player for a year or more; case and point, perpetual underperformers Cloud9 took home $221,155 (1.2 percent) for their 9-12th place finish. By distributing the pool across as many players as possible, the argument went, Valve would be maximizing its support for professional Dota 2.


This logic is sound enough, so why change it in 2016? Here are two possible explanations, one structural and one cynical.

Even compared to last year, the professional Dota 2 scene has benefited from a higher degree of organizational and financial stability. More teams enjoy the benefits of a stable, sustainable salary than ever before. At the same time, the aggregate prize pool in Dota 2 has increased substantially; though the number of third-party Dota 2 tournaments decreased in 2016, Valve introduced the Dota 2 Majors, a trio of $3 million tournaments (37 percent of which, $1,110,000 goes to the winning team). In total, that’s an additional $9 million dollars being pumped into Dota 2’s professional scene. As a result, the spread-the-wealth argument that led to the downward distribution of the prize pool at The International 5 simply isn’t as persuasive in 2016.

That’s the structuralist argument; the cynic might counter that even if there’s more money in Dota 2 than ever before, the player baseand The International’s prize poolhas plateaued. The International 6’s prize has grown only marginally over last year’s (from $18,429,613 to $19,301,276) probably due to some combination of the slow growth of the player base, some element of viewer fatigue (“I already bought compendiums for the Majors/last year’s International!”), and the lack of any new, money-sucking tricks in this year’s compendium. There’s a dissonance, then, between the storyline of the rise of Dota 2, itself a key part of esports’ exponential growth since 2011, and the paltry development of Dota 2 between TI5 and TI6, as evidenced by the paltry growth of its prize pool this year.

The player base – and The International’s prize pool – has plateaued.

One possible way of covering up, or at least distracting attention away from, this deviation from the PR-friendly narrative of explosive growth is to artificially produce some kind of explosive growth, like “boosting” the first place prize by a significant amount. This year’s champion’s purse, $8,542,256, does, in fact, represents a 30 percent increase over that of last year ($6,634,661), even if the majority of this growth comes as the result of redistribution and not increased crowdfunding. Picture the copy: if you’re Valve, “the grand prize of The International saw a 30 percent boost” sounds a lot better than “The overall prize pool inched up by 5 percent.”

Of course, that all seems a bit conspiratorial, which hasn’t really been Valve’s style when it comes to the company’s hands-off approach to public relations. The fact remains that, plateauing be damned, The International is still The Biggest Tournament Ever, and will likely remain so for the foreseeable future. But without a larger initial investment from Valve or a significant change to the size of player base, the days of The International’s prize pool’s exponential growth are effectively over.

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